Athletics: Curbishley takes Gunnell's baton

Simon Turnbull meets the woman who bears the burden of following a track legend
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There will be no final hurdle for Sally Gunnell to clear when the most glittering golden girl in British athletics history takes her farewell bow at Gateshead International Stadium tonight. The calf injury which brought a premature end to her World Championship challenge in Athens last month has ruled out a last hurrah over the hurdles in the Bupa Grand Prix II meeting. Instead, a glory leg has been set up for the retiring British women's team captain. She runs last for a Great Britain quartet in the 4 x 200m relay which has been specially added to the end of the programme. It would have been just as symbolic, though, if not quite as fitting, if Gunnell had been asked to pass on the baton herself.

That, metaphorically at least, is what she will do when she crosses the line. Allison Curbishley, in fact, is already carrying the burden of being labelled "the new Sally Gunnell". It is her task, after handing the actual relay baton to the original Gunnell herself in the Gateshead finale, to follow in the spikemarks of Britain's most successful female athlete, the only one to have broken a world record and collected a grand slam of Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles.

Curbishley, all the evidence suggests, is a custom-built replacement 400m hurdler for Gunnell. Even Malcolm Arnold, the British Athletic Federation's performance director, has ventured to suggest that the emerging young Teessider, who he has coached since March this year, "can be as good as, if not better, than Sally". And Colin Jackson, who has been guided by Arnold to World Championship gold as a 110m hurdler, has spoken of Curbishley as "a genuine medal prospect for the Sydney Olympics in 2000".

Such great expectations are not without the soundest of foundations. Curbishley's personal best, 59.04sec, ranks her only 48th among the British women who have hurdled 400m. But that time dates back three years, to her days as a teenage prodigy, before her studies at Birmingham University obliged her temporarily to limit her athletic ambition to a non-technical event. Now, though, at 21, she is ready to return to the one-lap hurdles. And she does so with justifiable confidence of graduation to the world's elite after making her mark on the flat this summer, having struck 400m gold at both the European Under-23 Championships and the World Student Games.

More pertinently, in improving her personal best from 52.76sec to 50.78sec Curbishley has run the hurdle-free 400m quicker than four of the five fastest ever one-lap hurdlers - Gunnell included. "I can understand all the hype," Curbishley said of her embryonic existence as Sally Gunnell Mark II. "It is a lot of pressure for an athlete but I'm just going to use the tag I've been given to my benefit, to turn it round and try to build on it.

"I can see an opportunity for me to excel in the 400m hurdles, to be up there at world level. Now that I'm running 50.7 for 400m even a five- second deficit over the hurdles would take me to tenth in the world rankings. And I certainly think I should be capable of a three-second deficit next summer."

That rough estimation puts Curbishley's considerable potential into perspective. Gunnell is the only British woman to have hurdled 400m quicker than 53.7sec, and in her first season at the event, in 1988, her best time was 54.03sec. Like Curbishley, Gunnell was 21 when she turned her attention to the 400m hurdles, but she had no grand act to follow. The British record was only 56.04sec.

Curbishley will be judged - inevitably, if unfairly - in comparison with the world-shattering deeds of her immediate predecessor, whose winning time at the 1993 World Championships, 52.74sec, has been eclipsed as a world record but makes her the best of British by a margin of 1.89sec. It augurs well that the high speed human locomotive from Stockton-on-Tees, the town George Stephenson's railway pioneering put on the map, happens to be blessed with a determined streak. Curbishley won her first 400m hurdles race, in an open meeting at York in 1992, despite tearing knee ligaments at the 200m mark; she carried on to the finish line before collapsing and being carried off to hospital. And she spent three days attached to a saline drip in a Chinese hospital in 1993 after collapsing on a trip organised by the Eric Liddell Foundation; "I can remember actually lying there asking if I was going to die," she recalled.

Curbishley can also recall following Gunnell to the warm-up track as a star-struck schoolgirl spectator at one of the major Gateshead meetings. "It just seems like five minutes ago," she mused. "It's nice that I'll be passing the baton to Sally on Sunday. I'm just glad I've got to know her in the last couple of years."

The acquaintance has become a close one this summer. Curbishley's one- time idol was her room-mate at the World Championships and has offered to help in an advisory role when she moves to Birmingham to start her senior hurdling career under the direct supervision of Arnold. "It's going to be a struggle setting up home there," she said, "but I'm hoping to make a living out of the sport. The way I see it is I'm not going to get this opportunity ever again. I just want to know that in 10 years time I'll have achieved whatever I have because I've given it everything." Such tunnel vision can only help the golden girl understudy whose future will be viewed in Gunnell vision.